February 8th, 2011
Do You Have To Speak Spanish To Be A “Real” Latino?

You know it, and I know it, even though you may never have heard anyone say it out loud. You’re only a “real” Latino (substitute Chicano, Mexican, Salvadoran, Boricua, etc.) if you speak Spanish. If you don’t, well then, you’re just not down.

Before I launch into my little ditty about my trials with the Spanish language, let me give you some context. My family is from the South Texas border, but through circumstance and what I would argue was serendipity, I grew up in Los Angeles. After my parents were divorced and my father who spoke mostly Spanish to us moved out, my Spanish speaking abilities suffered greatly. It wasn’t until I was in college that I started to take Spanish classes again that I realized I had huge deficits that I needed to make up to be a fluent speaker, so that’s when I decided to go study in Monterrey, México for a few semesters. Although it was hard and I would not say that I am totally fluent by any means (are we ever totally fluent in any language?), I did manage to learn to speak well and read/write pretty good during my time in Monterrey, and for this opportunity I will be forever grateful.

That said, growing up as a güera in Los Angeles — the downest of the down cities — I often felt like I wasn’t Latina “enough.” Then, when I’d go home to the border in the summer and everyone switched between English and Spanish so easily that it would have been one language and I didn’t always understand, I felt even less “enough.” These feelings were only exacerbated when I would sometimes fail to understand what my grandparents were saying in their labored English (which they only spoke to me because they didn’t think I understood Spanish), or, they’d speak Spanish too fast for me to understand. Sigh.

All my past insecurities aside, I’ve learned that speaking Spanish is an excellent addition to my cultural and educational repertoire — but it isn’t the end-all, be-all. I love speaking Spanish, listening to Spanish, music in Spanish, etc., but the language in and of itself doesn’t mean anything without the cultural context in which it’s spoken.

Oddly enough, now that I’m a competent Spanish speaker, I find that I make other Latinos uncomfortable with my language skills — exactly as I used to feel as a youngster! And I don’t mean to try to be superior, or to make anyone feel inadequate for what they don’t know, just as I realize no one ever did that to me. What I will say, though, is that learning to speak Spanish properly, or even to read and write it properly, was one of the best experiences and decisions of my life and I think as Nicholas Kristof said somewhat inarticulately, Spanish is the most important language for people in the U.S. to learn.

You don’t have to go to Monterrey for a year abroad as I did — in fact, having recently spoken with relatives there, I wouldn’t recommend it — but if you really want to learn it, you can. There’s really no excuse these days, since there are Latinos literally everywhere; tutor someone in English and they can help you in Spanish, watch Spanish TV, listen to music in Spanish, etc. You can do it if you want to, and having been on both sides, I can assure you that the grass really is greener on the bilingual side.

14 thoughts on “Do You Have To Speak Spanish To Be A “Real” Latino?

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  2. For what it’s worth, I’m biracial, in my 20’s and taking a Spanish class. I don’t know if being bilingual is going to make me “more Latina” but it’s going to make me a way cooler person.

  3. I believe you only have to proud of your heritage and tradition. I know someone who is half white and half Latino and only knows of his history because he educates himself and is proud of it. Parrotts can speak Spanish too. It’s not the language, it’s the culture and traiditon.

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  5. It’s not only the tongue that denotes where you belong, but it’s the attitude. I say, to be a Latino, be confident and always held your head up high. Be passionate with what are you’re working on and of course, your accent.

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  7. i am a half breed (white & hispanic), and i don’t speak Spanish. whenever someone accuses me of not being a “latino”, either because i’m a half breed or just because i don’t speak Spanish, to me, these are fighting words, and will remain so to my dying day. also, as a half breed, i have endured much racial prejudice from both sides, with whites refusing to accept me as such, and with hispanics refusing to recognize me as hispanic as well. this ethnicity bias on both sides is extremely harmful emotionally (reverse discrimination from the hispanic perspective) and must stop.

    • Dear Debra, I’m a guy (in CA), also a half-breed (anglo+latino); this mixture seems to be very rare,
      since I never seem to meet others like myself.

      I’m tired of Spanish, and I don’t even speak it. When I was younger (around 7 years old),
      I used to be bilingual, but as I got older I just stuck to speaking English, and hence my Spanish is rusty. Yes, I get a lot of prejudice sent against me too; Here in California,
      I feel like I can’t even get a job; Employers take one look at my name on the application,
      and they assume that I’m “from over the border”.

      I don’t care if Hispanics recognize me as one of their own.
      I don’t feel very Hispanic; I only look kind of brown, but I’m taller than most Hispanics,
      ( 5` 11″), so if “Mexicans” don’t want to hang with me, then what do I care, I already
      have white friends, who accept me as I am.

  8. Sara, I had a similar experience growing up. My parents are from Uvalde, Texas and spoke both English and Spanish. I grew up in Stockton, California and English was my first language. My parents and paternal grandparents who also moved to Stockton, spoke to me in English. They spoke Spanish when they didn’t want me to know what was going on.

    I moved back to Uvalde to attend the 8th grade and soon found out that the other Mexican kids would not hang with me because I didn’t speak Spanish. The Anglo kids would not hang with me because I was Mexican. So during that first back in Uvalde, the only people I spoke to were my cousins.

    It wasn’t until I started to play football that I finally began to make friends outside the family. The Spanish I learned during high school was teenager street slang Spanish. (We were at the tail end of the Pachugo era in Uvalde at that time.) It wasn’t until I was in college that I tool a Spanish class and discovered all the words I had been saying incorrectly. My Spanish got better, but it wasn’t until I went to work in Watsonville, California and was among farm workers 24/7 that I really learned to speak Spanish well.

    When I cam back to Texas some years later, my friends from way back were a bit shocked to learn that I could not only keep up with them in Spanish but went far beyond in terms of variety in the vocabulary. Asi, es que, todos tenemos nuestra historia de como aprendimos el Español.

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